Income surveys are tools that funders use to determine a community’s median household income (MHI), which affects eligibility and favorability of terms for grant and loan packages. To ensure confidentiality, most funders require a third-party entity like the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC), the western RCAP, to conduct the survey. Income surveys usually happen in two phases: a paper survey mailed to rate payers’ homes, followed by at least one round of door-to-door interviews with households that did not respond by mail. As an RCAC technical assistance provider, I’ve helped to conduct income surveys.
In August 2020, the US Department of Agriculture Rural Development (USDA RD) asked RCAC to perform an income survey in Panhandle Village, a very small community near Rathdrum, Idaho. Panhandle Village was seeking infrastructure funding from USDA RD and the Idaho Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program to update its drinking water distribution system.
There were 50 active residential water connections at Panhandle Village, and CDBG requires an 80% response rate for the survey, based on system size. This high response rate is often hard to achieve. To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic made it unsafe for technical assistance providers (TAPs) and community members to travel and complete the door-to-door interviews. These interviews are often critical to collect the required number of survey responses, and RCAC has not conducted many income surveys of this size without needing to go door to door.
Nevertheless, the RCAC staff put their heads together to develop a methodology that would satisfy the funding agencies and gather the necessary responses.
COVID-19 presented several challenges to conducting the income survey:
We were unable to host public meetings to answer questions about the survey and the process. Doing public outreach early and often is critical for generating survey participation, and in-person presentations are traditionally the most effective way to garner local support.
Without the option of going door-to-door, we needed another way to connect with all rate payers directly for follow-up. For example, if not all rate payers had email addresses, we could not send the survey via email. The team also discussed an electronic survey, but neither the agencies nor TAPs had a framework or format to perform secure online income surveys, so that was not feasible. The issue with access remained, as not every home had internet access.
COVID-19 also impacted the U.S. Postal Service and, for many reasons, caused serious delays in mail delivery. Since CDBG requires an 80% response rate within 75 days to consider the survey valid, these mail delays were a major hurdle.
Some residents reported they had lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and had either retired or begun receiving unemployment. This meant their reported income for the previous year was not representative of their current or expected future income.
Creative, Collaborative Solutions
RCAC worked closely with funders to identify creative solutions that would yield a valid survey. We also worked with community leaders to develop new strategies to generate buy-in and enable timely responses from ratepayers.
While I worked in close communication with Panhandle Village representatives to track survey responses and focus local outreach to non-responders, the water system’s board members reached out to people they knew personally. The community seemed supportive, but time began to run out while we waited for surveys to arrive by mail. To address this issue, I conducted phone interviews with several residents to achieve the 80% response rate before the 75-day deadline.
Our team also sent out three rounds of mailers (instead of just one) with an extra week built into the deadline, to accommodate mail delivery delays. The funders adjusted their requirements to support phone interviews in lieu of door-to-door interviews. Lastly, community leaders made phone calls and went to the homes of people they knew to encourage residents to complete the survey.
Thanks to these combined efforts and solutions, we succeeded in conducting a valid survey before the deadline!
As with many other processes and systems, COVID-19 revealed weaknesses within the standard median household income (MHI) process. Fillable forms or online surveys may be a future option, although they need to be considered alongside lack of internet access and the ability to maintain confidentiality. Many rural areas do not have broadband or any access to the internet. Even in communities with internet access, like Panhandle Village, many residents do not have internet in their homes. Equitable access to the internet ought to be considered when evaluating traditional mail and in-person income survey alternatives.
The small town of Autaugaville lies in the heart of Alabama. The town is located in Autauga County, which took its name from the Native American tribe that occupied the area. The county was established around 1818, and the town of Autaugaville was incorporated about 21 years later.
The town has a population of approximately 1,400 people and a utility system that services 533 water connections and 233 wastewater connections. The Autaugaville Water System was having issues keeping in compliance with certain state regulations. The issues were noted during routine inspections from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM).
ADEM knew Autaugaville needed guidance in bringing its water system back into compliance, so they called Communities Unlimited for assistance (CU). Communities Unlimited is the southern RCAP partner.
Meeting with the Mayor
Communities Unlimited was first referred to Autaugaville in early December 2019, after ADEM reported that the water system had non-compliance issues related to monitoring and reporting violations of the Lead and Copper Rule. Around the time Communities Unlimited began coordinating with the town’s mayor, the Autaugaville water operator took a training class offered by Communities Unlimited on proper maintenance methods for small water and wastewater systems.
The water operator contacted the mayor and praised Communities Unlimited, convincing the mayor that CU could help the town with its water compliance issues. The mayor agreed to meet with CU, along with the water operator, in late December. The officials laid out the issues and concerns for the water system, and Communities Unlimited said it was prepared to help.
During inspections by ADEM, other non-compliance issues were found within the system. The list from ADEM noted several deficiencies including the need for the Autaugaville water system to evaluate the security of their facilities and to update their Risk and Resiliance Assessment and Emergency Response Plan. They also needed to develop a system map and to initiate a schedule for tank and hydrant inspection and maintenance program.
Despite the increased workload, Communities Unlimited hit the ground running to assist Autaugaville in bringing its water system back into compliance and to address the deficiencies noted by ADEM’s sanitary survey.
Communities Unlimited began with a Technical, Managerial and Financial Assessment (TMF) to evaluate the current state of the water utility. It was found that the mayor had a decent grasp of the financial and managerial necessities for the water system. Still, work would be needed on the operations and maintenance aspects to keep the system in compliance.
Following the deficiencies found during the TMF Assessment, Communities Unlimited developed a community technical assistance work plan, which delineated a scope of technical assistance and training solutions to address Autaugaville’s problems and achieve the outcome of bringing this small municipal water system back into compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Responding to a pandemic
Just as the work was ramping up, it was brought to a temporary hiatus as the COVID-19 crisis caused shutdowns in business travel in March 2020. Travel to communities was halted to protect both local officials and essential water system staff members in addition to Communities Unlimited employees.
With in-person site visits temporarily suspended, Communities Unlimited quickly adapted to continue serving clients and communities by employing virtual assistance through web-based video conferencing with Autaugaville and other communities that CU serves.
As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, Communities Unlimited responded by providing a variety of tools and explanations to assist communities and small businesses working to understand the rapid-fire responses from the government. Communities Unlimited created a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page to explain how the Families First and CARES acts would affect small businesses and rural communities, including water and wastewater systems like Autaugaville.
Communities Unlimited also dissected the laws and created the Small Business Toolkit, an interactive spreadsheet that told businesses and rural communities what laws and programs would work best for them. Links to the new tools and explanations of their use were sent to Autaugaville officials to assist them through the COVID-19 crisis. Communities Unlimited continued to work with the water utility on technical assistance and training tasks pursuant to the Autaugaville Technical Assistance Work Plan.
One issue to address was the need for board and staff training. In-person training was not available due to the pandemic, but Communities Unlimited found ways to deliver what was needed. Communities Unlimited provided resource materials and self-study assignments to the mayor and city council members, then followed up with phone calls to address any issues along the way. In addition, Communities Unlimited transitioned its in-person training online. The move allowed training to continue without endangering those in the community or at CU, and has generally resulted in an increased number of participants who can engage in this web-based training from the safety of their own homes.(left to right) Dinah Foreman, CU, Lee Pittman, Autaugaville opetator, Alfred Jackson, CU
Assessing the Impact
Between May 1-15, 2020, the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) asked its partners nationwide to survey their communities in each state to determine the economic impact of COVID-19 on rural and tribal water and wastewater utilities.
Communities Unlimited, the Southern RCAP, was able to survey communities from each of the seven states it serves. One of those survey participants was Autaugaville.
One of the survey questions was whether utilities saw an increase in delinquent accounts due to customers’ financial hardships. There were also questions about whether late fees were still being issued, and whether personnel absenteeism was an issue.
Autaugaville answered the questions, and found that most customers kept up their payments, and personnel were still reporting to work. Not only did the answers assist the larger survey, they also showed that the work plan initially set out for the water utility could continue without significant interruption.
Autaugaville’s answers became part of the final survey results, which can be found online at https://www.rcap.org/news/covid19impact/.
With technology-based methods in place for communication and training, Communities Unlimited has quickly adapted to protect the health and safety of client communities and staff while continuing to meet the mission and goal of assisting small communities and businesses throughout their seven-state geographical area. CU’s continued work with Autaugaville is expected to be completed within the next few months with the outcomes of improved public health, regulatory compliance, and improved managerial capacity.
RCAP regional affiliates including Communities Unlimited have quickly transitioned to adapt to utilizing new techniques, tools, and processes during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis to continue to implement outcome-based technical assistance and training to rural communities across the United States.